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Splitting the House


Rep. TJ Shope, R-Coolidge

Rep. TJ Shope, R-Coolidge

Shope eyes smaller districts for state representatives

Rep. T.J. Shope wants to cut Arizona’s massive House of Representatives districts in half.

The first-term lawmaker hasn’t completed his plans yet, but is strongly leaning toward a proposal that would split the House districts in half. Rather than have each legislative district elect two House members at large, Shope’s plan would create two separate House districts that would be contained within each Senate district.

The Legislature would still be made up of 30 senators and 60 representatives.

Shope, R-Coolidge, said he has been contemplating such a change for a while. But he said he decided to move forward after reading a Nov. 1 article in the Arizona Capitol Times about the size of the state’s legislative districts, which are among the most populous in the United States.

With an average population of more than 218,000 per legislative district, Arizona has the third most populous House districts in the country, second only to California and New Jersey. Arizona’s Senate districts are the 10th largest in the country, though Shope’s proposal wouldn’t affect them. As an added bonus for rural lawmakers such as Shope, splitting up the districts would reduce the size of their sprawling, expansive districts.

“We’d go from representing 217-ish thousand people to 108,000, 109,000 people, which I think brings government closer to the people that we represent. It makes us more effective at doing our job and better able to represent the citizens that we do represent,” Shope said.

The Arizona Constitution specifies that each of the 30 legislative districts shall elect two House members, so Shope’s proposal would require voter approval.

Shope said he plans to talk with the Legislative Council about the proposal after Thanksgiving. He is still working on some of the details. For example, he said he isn’t sure whether he’d want the state to draw new House districts immediately or wait until the next redistricting process begins in 2021.

He acknowledged that it might take more than one legislative session to achieve his goal. But even if it can’t be done in 2014, Shope said he wants to get a committee hearing and at least start a conversation on the subject.

“Theoretically, it could be on the ballot as early as the 2014 election. A more realistic idea would probably be that we’ll get this introduced and hopefully bring this forward for conversation. Maybe other ideas could come to the forefront on this, and we can make sure that it’s ready for prime time whenever it’s ready to go to the ballot,” Shope said.

Shope said he believes lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be receptive to the idea. For Republicans, he said smaller districts would appeal to conservatives’ belief in government that is close to the people. For Democrats, he said the new districts would provide representation to more communities.

Furthermore, the plan wouldn’t increase the number of legislators, so the state won’t have to pay more lawmaker and staff salaries, which Shope said is a selling point. He said Arizona would probably have to build a new, larger Capitol if it increased the number of lawmakers.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, is already receptive to Shope’s idea. He said the immense size of Arizona’s legislative districts has been a “pet peeve” of his for a while.

But Mesnard said the best option may to be to wait until the next redistricting. As a practical matter, it would probably be easier to redraw the maps as a whole rather than do a partial redrawing, he said, and voters only expect the lines to change every 10 years.

And as a political matter, many Republicans are wary of the current Independent Redistricting Commission, which conservatives have long accused of favoring Democrats. Several Republican-led lawsuits against the IRC are pending.

“I’m already wary of this commission (and) what they did with the current districts. I certainly wouldn’t want to exacerbate the situation anymore,” Mesnard said.

Shope acknowledged that some GOP lawmakers would be more likely to support his plan if it didn’t empower the current IRC to draw the new House districts. Legislative District 8, which Shope represents, is at the heart of a lawsuit against the commission’s legislative map. Republicans accused the IRC of intentionally over-populating neighboring Legislative District 11 with GOP voters in order to make LD8 more competitive.

“I, as a representative from Legislative District 8, know firsthand what kind of problems the redistricting commission has caused for members, especially in a district like mine,” Shope said.

Shope’s colleagues had mixed opinions on his proposal, and many said they would reserve judgment until they saw the details.

Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, was receptive the idea, but said he would have to see the details first.

“Anything that would help the state as a whole I’m for. I just want to make sure it does that,” Boyer said.

Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, strongly supported the idea. Wheeler said Arizona’s districts are too large, and said current system is confusing to many voters, who often don’t realize that they elect two at-large members from each district.

“To me, it’s a common sense issue,” Wheeler said. “It’s more manageable. It’s easier to stay in touch with constituents.”

Rep. Chad Campbell, the House minority leader, said Arizona should consider shrinking its legislative districts.

“Our districts are getting pretty unwieldy,” said Campbell, D-Phoenix. “When I talk to people in other states and I tell them that I have 220,000 people in my district, their jaws hit the floor most of the time.”

Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said he’s willing to listen to Shope’s reasoning. But he said he has no problem with the way the districts are structured now.

And Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said a better idea would be to simply give lawmakers more staffers. With so many constituents to serve, Orr said lawmakers should have at least one full-time administrative assistant.

“In my mind, the problem is a problem of resources,” Orr said. “You look at New York … they have six, sometimes seven staff members. The City Council members in Tucson who represent less people, they have five or six staff members right there.”

Orr’s Democratic-leaning district also raises questions about the political impact of splitting the districts. Orr’s Legislative District 9 is one of only two legislative districts with bipartisan House delegations. The other is Phoenix-based Legislative District 28, where Democratic Rep. Eric Meyer holds a seat in a Republican-leaning district.

Shope said he doesn’t know what impact smaller districts would have on lawmakers such as Meyer and Orr, who were elected despite being in the minority parties of their districts. Shope said the political ramifications of the plan as a whole are completely unknown.

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